The Detroit of Imagination
BY Rachel Schlotfeldt — January 21, 2022

Images of Detroit’s urban decay have served to feed the public imagination as a sort of apocalyptic fantasy. Rather than understanding the architectural and spatial decomposition of Detroit as being intimately intertwined with the forces of neoliberal capitalism, the city itself has been exploited to confirm a collective fear of decline. But what about the future of Detroit? The problematic nature of depicting the city in photographs and through art as a source of “ruin porn” stems from its decontextualization, writing narratives onto a place that are decentralized or unrelated to the place itself. But ruin is the site of rebirth, and Detroit is in an interesting position to be able to decide the direction it will grow. A new Detroit, birthed in an age of technological modernity, has the capacity to sustainably grow with considerations of digitality. Perhaps this is why it has served as a space for the digital imagination.

The Venice Architecture Biennale focused on “The Architectural Imagination,” envisioning possibilities for Detroit. As the curator for the exhibit, Monica Ponce de Leon, stated, architecture, particularly within the context of a city like Detroit, has the possibility to present “ideas that don’t reinforce existing power structures.” Architect Greg Lynn’s project in particular reclaimed the Detroit Packard Plant as The Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation. Using Microsoft HoloLens technology, Lynn was able to literally overlay the decaying auto plant with a projection of his designs,  reimagining it as a tech hub where robotics, transportation, education, and retail converge to create a space of flowing commerce, technology, and ideas.

Detroit has also recently been used as the site of Quantic Dream’s upcoming video game, Detroit: Become Human. The setting itself serves as a backdrop for the cinematic, neo-noir thriller, which explores the human-android relationship by exploring the possibilities of emotionally advanced artificial intelligence. Perhaps the contradictions of modernity and nostalgic, neo-noir thriller robotics and sentient life are overlaid on Detroit because the city itself is full of juxtapositions. These conflicting ideas are essential to Detroit as it tries to aggregate the parts of its identity necessary to move forward and re-create itself.

When introducing the language of technology to the discussion of Detroit’s future, narratives of space must concern themselves with integration and redevelopment. By overlaying architectural and imaginative designs for the future on Detroit, the sustained life that has continued on and the rich history of the city’s past are erased. It’s important when imagining the future that the growth of the city is rooted in context. Like Detroit: Become Human, the city itself must not act as a playground for the imagination, but rather serve to emphasize and complement other kinds of narrative contradictions. Additionally, like Lynn’s designs for the Packard Plant, the physicality and use of space shouldn’t be disassociated from its original context, but rather readapted and revitalized for modern times. By refusing to ignore Detroit’s heartbeat and choosing to remember and celebrate the past, there is hope for a city independent of the power structures that have defined its political, economic, and racial history.